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Khao Lak

Travel Tip: The best time to visit the islands in this section is December to May. In recent years, the Thai government has completely shut down the Ko Smilan National Marine Park and Ko Surin National Park from May to October or November to allow the marine life a much-needed break from the onslaught of boats and humans in high season.

There are lots of adventure tour operators and travel agents on Phuket, all offering a variety of day and overnight trips. Phang Nga Bay is popular for adventure travel.

Just over an hour from the northernmost tip of Phuket, in the province of Phang Nga, the coastal town of Khao Lak was the area hardest hit by the 2004 tsunami. Now almost entirely rebuilt, today it's a burgeoning eco-tourism destination with some magnificent resorts, some new, and some wholly rebuilt. Popular with the Euro and Scandinavian crowds, today it attracts nature lovers who come to go bird-watching and soak in its waterfalls. It's an ideal jumping-off point for visits to pristine dive spots around the Ko Similan and Ko Surin National Marine Park (the best months to visit are Dec-May; the park is closed May-Oct).

Comprising nine islands, the Similan Islands are rated in the top-10 best dive sites in the world for the stunning arrays of unspoiled corals, sea fans, and sponges, as well as angelfish, parrotfish, manta rays, and sometimes white-tipped sharks. Numerous local dive operators offer short (approx. 3 hr. by speedboat) or long trips to these regions from Thap Lamu Pier, 8km (5 miles) south of Khao Lak. For bungalow or camping accommodations on the islands, contact Similan National Park (local office tel. 07659-5045). A similar style of basic accommodations is also available in Ko Surin National Park (tel. 07647-2145), which comprises five islands with some of the best shallow water corals. Whale sharks are known to frequent these waters, which, in the past, were once the exclusive domain of Phuket's indigenous people, the Sea Gypsies.

Boats leave from Khuraburi Pier, north of Khao Lak, with a journey time of 4 hours to the islands. From here, fans of marine life can take a day trip to isolated Ko Phra Thong to visit the island's conservation center. Manned (only in dry season) by an international team of experts and volunteers, it surveys and protects rare turtles and the region's disappearing, yet ecologically vital, mangroves. Visit www.naucrates.org for info.

Other local attractions include miles of peaceful white-sand beaches, temple tours, white-water rafting, and jungle treks. Visit Khao Lak Land Discovery (www.khaolaklanddiscovery.com; tel. 07648-5411) for info.

Where to Stay -- Many visitors who are tired of Phuket's high prices and full-on party vibe head up here for long or short breaks at properties ranging from dreamy resorts to simple shacks. As with most tropical destinations, the more you spend, the closer to the beach you’ll be. The budget options tend to be closer to the town’s congested center but nothing is too far from the water.

We cover three resorts in the restaurant section of Phuket. For the most luxurious options, click on this link for The Sarojin and La Flora Resort & Spa. An excellent moderate choice is The Haven. On the budget end, there are bungalows in a coconut grove near the beach at Phu Khao Lak (www.phukhaolak.com; tel. 07648-5141), with fan rooms starting at 600B, and air-con rooms from 1,500B. Fasai House (www.fasaihouse.com; tel. 07648-5867) is another good choice, with super clean air-conditioned rooms and a small pool; here rooms cost between 600B and 950B. Both are good spots to swap diving stories with fellow travelers.

Where to Dine -- Khao Lak isn’t a foodie destination. But it boasts a diverse range of options from hotel restos to places in town. Among the best is Takieng (26/43 Moo 5; tel. 86952-7963), just north of town. It serves steamed fish in curry sauce, outstanding grilled squid with a spicy dip, and a slightly overwhelming number of other Thai classics. To get to Go Pong (10/1 Moo 7; tel. 081907-7460) you’ll either follow the smell of the aromatic noodle soups or follow the crowds of locals that adore this authentic street-side, casual restaurant. The stir-fried noodles are outstanding here. Siam Tumeric (17/11 Moo 2; tel. 07649-0564) is run by the affable Raj who serves some of best Thai on the island. English-speaking staff helpfully offer suggestions but don’t miss the tableside BBQ of fresh-caught seafood like prawns and squid. One warning: A number of eateries close during the low season (May–Oct), so contact them to check that they’re serving before heading out.

Yao Islands

Midway to Krabi and 1 hour's boat ride from Phuket's Bang Rong Pier (north of Boat Lagoon, turn east at the Heroines' Monument), the twin islands of Ko Yao Yai and Ko Yao Noi ("Big Long Island" and "Little Long Island") are where nature lovers head to enjoy some scenery and relax. A world apart from the clamor of Ko Phi Phi, Phang Nga Bay's two largest islands are not as yet very touristy and are great for cruising by motorbike or mountain bike (available for rent on both islands at around 200B/100B per day).

A couple of reasons these islands never became as popular as Ko Phi Phi is that most beaches are rather stony and the sea is not as clear as around nearby islands, so they are not great for swimming. The nearest things to civilization on Ko Yao Noi are the 7-Eleven store and ATM, and there's still not a traffic light to be seen. Yet this is the more developed of the two islands, with a road running all the way around it and a rapidly growing choice of resorts (mostly on the east coast). Ko Yao Yai, by contrast, has just a few roads and a handful of places to stay.

More active travelers can go kayaking, bird-watching, or head off to snorkel and explore nearby uninhabited islands by longtail; any resort can make arrangements. In addition, there's fishing, jungle walks, or the exhaustive sport of hammock swinging: It all makes for a perfect island escape.

Ferries to both islands leave Bang Rong Pier approximately hourly throughout the day, and cost 120B. Call ahead to your accommodations to arrange transport from the pier.

Where to Stay -- Some resorts on Ko Yao Noi open all year, while others close during the rainy season (May-Sept). There's such a range of choice (with several new places set to open in 2010) that you might pay anywhere between 1,000B and 400,000B for a room (yes, that's for 1 night). For a laid-back budget bungalow resort, try Sabai Corner (tel. 07659-7497; www.sabaicornerbungalows.com), which has a handful of bungalows from 500B; each has a different design but all have spacious balconies and hammocks. An even better budget choice Suntisook (tel. 07558-2750), situated on a lovely, tranquil beach at the south end of the island, with rooms from 2,000B (often closed May–Sept); it also has a dive shop, a very good restaurant, and tons of hammocks. Right next door (though vegetation is so dense that guests probably never know) is the tiny, upscale Koyao Bay Pavilions (www.koyaobay.com; tel. 07659-7441), where the gorgeous suites, cottages, and private pool villas go for between 5000B and 10,000B, and the Hong Islands in the distance make for stunning scenery. You’ll find similar prices and facilities at Ko Yao Island Resort (www.koyao.com; tel. 07659-7474), about halfway down the east coast in a former coconut plantation. This bliss-inducing resort has 15 open-concept (meaning no locks on the doors, but there are safes) thatched and well-spaced villas with indoor and outdoor bathrooms and tip top service.

If you need a break from your chosen resort on Ko Yao Noi, head on over to Chaba Café (www.fb.com/chabacafeandwinelounge; tel. 087887-0625) on the east coast, where they serve a grab bag of dishes like avocado smoothies, salads, sandwiches, pasta, and Thai food with much success. Pizzeria La Luna (www.lalunakohyao.com; tel. 0850689-4326) serves wood-fired pizzas and pastas to a regular list of island dwellers. They’ve added delivery services and breakfast to their menu, too.

On Ko Yao Yai, the Santhiya Koh Yao Yai (www.santhiya.com/kohyaoyai; tel. 07659-2888) has rooms with lots of teak wood, several pools, and ravishing sunset views. However, we noticed the staff being short-tempered with several guests on our recent stay. Rates run a wide range: 2,250B for a deluxe double to 23,500B for a four-bedroom villa. Thiwson Beach Resort (www.thiwsonbeach.com; tel. 081956-7582) offers great value for money with breezy bungalows ranging from 2,000B to 3,500B. There’s a nice pool, and it’s on a pretty stretch of beach.

Racha Islands & Phang Nga Bay

From Chalong Bay at the south end of Phuket, there's a hulking daily ferry service to the idyllic islet of Ko Racha (aka Ko Raya or Ko Raja), a delightful island getaway with a perfect white-sand beach. It's hugely popular with day-trippers in the dry season. Sybarites in search of seclusion can also splash out at their own pool villa at The Racha (tel. 07635-5455; www.theracha.com), a magnificent contemporary-styled luxury hotel that cascades down the hill to the cerulean sea. (The hotel offers speedboat transfers to its guests, subject to the weather.) You'll need deep pockets for their premium Lighthouse suite, which costs 35,000B, but if that seems a bit steep, you can get deluxe villa rates online for 6,200B.

Phang Nga Bay, with its towering karst limestone spires, is a very popular day trip by boat -- some might say too popular, with hordes of tour groups descending on its tiny beaches. A more peaceful trip around the bay by sea kayak is possibly a better bet. Ko Phi Phi is another oversold day trip for snorkeling, or more commonly an overnight stay from Phuket.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.